Since fighting began in December 2013, civilian casualties have been a consistent feature of the South Sudanese civil war. A peace agreement signed in August last year provided a brief respite from the worst of the violence, but last month saw a return to ethnically-motivated killing.
This has been happening despite the presence of a relatively large United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force in Juba and begs the question of whether the UN Mission in South Sudan is up to the task.
The mission includes the directive to “protect civilians under threat of physical violence, irrespective of the source of such violence”. This mandate extends to foreigners, includes the “specific protection of women and children” and commits the mission to “maintain public safety and security of and within … civilian sites”. Moreover, it is authorised to use “all necessary means to carry out its tasks”. By any reasonable measure, the missions has been failing to adhere to this mandate.
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled) July 2016 was the most violent month in South Sudan since October 2014. There were nearly as many fatalities in South Sudan in July this year (659) as in the five preceding months combined (662).
Violence flared up again on July 7. Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and first vice-president Riek Machar started a gunfight at a security checkpoint, which quickly escalated. Tensions in Juba had been simmering for a few weeks prior to that owing to delays in implementing the peace agreement of August 2015.
Although the fighting was initially confined to different factions in the South Sudanese government, it quickly descended into widespread violence against civilians. From July 8 to 11, Human Rights Watch documented soldiers firing indiscriminately into densely populated areas — including camps for internally displaced persons — killing at least 73 civilians in the process. Human Rights Watch also documented targeted killings, rape, beating, looting and harassments, which were often ethnically-motivated.
South Sudan is a fractured country. Although much of the violence has played out along ethnic lines, the root causes of the conflict are as much about control of resources and political power as they are about ethnicity.
Nonetheless, the Dinka and the Nuer are the most prominent of South Sudan’s many ethnic groups and historical divisions between these two factions laid the foundation for the civil war that started in 2013. President Kiir is Dinka and former rebel commander turned vice-president Riek Machar is Nuer. Along with playing a role in previous conflicts, ethnic identity has assumed a conspicuous role in the most recent violence.
On July 11, soldiers from Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) surrounded the Bedale Hotel and demanded access so they could search for any Nuer being hidden there. After being refused, SPLA soldiers opened fire on the hotel, shooting through the walls and doors, killing at least one of their targets.
That same day, between 80 and 100 South Sudanese men in camouflage uniforms bearing the insignia of the president’s personal guard stormed the Terrain compound, a spot populated with foreign aid workers and South Sudanese elites.
During that raid, several women were raped, dozens of aid workers and staff were beaten and abused, and the compound was looted.
The attackers discovered prominent South Sudanese journalist John Gatluak and summarily executed him. News agency Associated Press (AP) reported that as soon as Gatluak was brought in front of the group, one of the looters shouted “Nuer” and shot him twice in the head. Gatluak was then shot four more times while lying on the ground. Further details of the attack are horrific, but even more disturbing is the lack of response from the UN Mission.
Almost as soon as the Terrain compound was breached, reports suggest guests and visitors were frantically trying to contact the mission. AP confirmed that the UN Joint Operations Centre was alerted to the attack at 3.37pm and again at 4.22pm. By 4.33pm a quick reaction force was alerted but the official UN timeline is blank until 6.52pm, when it concluded that they would not be sending a team. Twenty minutes later, another reaction force from the UN mission was asked to intervene. This second group also failed to deploy.
By this time the UN mission had known about the attack — which was taking place a few hundred metres from a UN compound — for roughly four hours.
South Sudanese Army Chief of Staff Paul Malong was also in touch with the UN mission by this stage and planned to send soldiers, but “eventually abandoned their intervention because it took too long for the quick reaction force to act”. Ultimately, South Sudanese forces did enter the Terrain and rescued most of the victims.
Thousands more South Sudanese have been displaced and the country faces the very real threat of a return to the scale of violence that characterised the country from 2013 to 2015. The UN mission is already a Chapter VII intervention, so there is little room for a serious escalation of its mandate.
The South Sudanese government initially announced its fervent opposition to an expansion of the UN mission but the government said recently that it would consider additional peacekeepers, provided it could influence the “size, mandate, weapons and contributing countries” of the mission.
Given its history of human rights abuse, it would be unwise to allow the government to dictate the terms of the mission in any way.
A more effective route might be to throw more support behind the regional protection force from the African Union (AU), which was backed tentatively at the AU summit in Kigali last month. AU peacekeepers will “have a broader mandate to engage in combat than UN peacekeepers” and “will be able to go where the fighting is happening”.
A major challenge would be to circumvent domestic hostility against foreign troops on South Sudanese soil. Sending an African force with a multidimensional mandate to engage combatants and foster a political solution might strike the right balance as a peacekeeping mission that can actually keep the peace, without provoking the resentment of the South Sudanese. This could work provided there is a built-in contingency plan to escalate the size and scope of the mission should the security situation deteriorate. — Institute for Security Studies
Zachary Donnenfeld is a researcher in African futures and innovation at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.